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Jamie Mason
A Better Offer Print


Exhibit A for the prosecution — United States Army v. Harrison.
Desc — voicemail logs of the defendant, 03/01/2025 to 06/13/2025.
These proceedings closed for reasons of national security (TOPSECRET//FIREF//NOFORN//EYESONLY//ETX9).

You have fourteen saved messages.

[beep]

Murray, it’s Tom. The Kuyper Drive, it works! The boys at the lab did a test and bam! From Earth orbit to Pluto in no time flat! Confirmed via radio signal and everything. Un-fucking-believable! So we’re a go.

Thing is we need financing like yesterday. Wentworth says twelve million at a minimum for a full-scale prototype. I’m contacting our backers in Zürich, but I need you to handle the domestic end. Tell the President and all that? We’ll need him when time comes for a public announcement. People trust him. I’ll ride herd on the lab guys and keep you in the loop. This is the big one. Keep your chin up and your pants on. Bye for now.

[beep]

Murray? Tom. Okay, here’s where it stands. Wire transfer arrived day before yesterday and the boys got to work. Found a good deal on a last-gen supercomputer and managed to get a couple of old titanium airframes from the Air Force cheap, so there’ll be surplus cash. And — get this — we’re gonna need a monkey. And not just any monkey, but one from this lab in Berkeley that teaches chimps to do stuff you wouldn’t believe. What the boys are telling me is we gotta put one of these chimps on the prototype and blast it out to one of the “hot spots” the radio telescope guys keep telling us might be prime territory for aliens. Kinda like a reporter, except with bananas. Pretty cool, huh? Here’s the thing: The chimp costs a quarter of a mil. Get back to me.

[beep]

Murray, Tom. I met the chimp. Name’s Winston. “Like the Prime Minister?” I ask his handler — she’s this real hottie named Paulette Sampson, by the way — and she says, “No, like the Orwell character.” So I laugh like I know who she’s talking about and watch her prep the chimp. Winston’s real smart. And he prefers apples to bananas, which is good, because apples come cheaper in bulk this time of year. Anyhoo. He’s smart enough to operate the Kuyper Drive. Not like, navigate-in-deep-space-smart or anything like that. But he can hit the button to launch and the button to come back. Which is a big bonus and solves a lot of problems. All in all, money well spent. Anyway, they’re still tryin’ to figure out how to get him to shit inside his little space suit, but otherwise everything’s going well. “Swimmingly,” as Doctor Sampson likes to say. She’s British. Can you beat that? Okay. Gotta go. I’ll email you pictures.

[beep]

Murray. Hey. I’m calling from the lab. The shuttle just docked with the prototype and the crew’s put Winston on board. We’ve done a test of the control routine and the monkey’s a prodigy, not shaken up by the zero-g at all. The Kuyper Drive is online and the supercomputer has programmed a destination in the Horsehead Nebula. Paulette — excuse me, Doctor Sampson — has arranged a series of signals with Winston so the little guy knows to go to the window and look around when he gets there and tell us what he sees. There’s even some simple camera equipment they’ve taught him to operate. So. In about ten minutes, we’re going to make history. I’ll call you when I have something. Take care.

[beep]

Jesus, Murray. You’re not going to believe this. Winston’s made contact with something. Or someone. I — I don’t know what to say. Everyone’s just freaking out here. Stay tuned.

[beep]

Murray. It’s Tom. The prototype just came back. Winston’s dead.

[beep]

Murray. Tom. Okay. Here’s what we’ve managed to piece together. Looks like, whatever killed Winston, it wasn’t aliens. The autopsy reveals that his system underwent some kind of massive shock during the return trip. Near as the doctors can figure, it had to do with the Kuyper Drive. Basically, close proximity to the thing for a prolonged period is gonna pretty much fry any Earth-based life form. We can’t even send a freaking goldfish and expect it to come back alive. Unbelievable! It’s not a total write-off, though. Winston did manage to snap a few pics while he was out there. We’re not sure if they’re pictures of aliens or just overexposed film, but ... if they are aliens, they’re sure nothing like us. Look like giant fireflies or something. I can’t email anything to you because the military’s come in and locked down the lab. As soon as I can send more info I will. Listen — they’re debriefing everyone and it’s my turn next. So if you don’t hear back I’ve probably been disappeared or something. Ha ha. Yeah.

[beep]

Murray? Hey. I, uh ... Jesus. It’s been a crazy couple days. Ah — we’re going ahead with the project. That’s right. The military’s taken over and we’ve got this new operations director. He’s a, um, general. He’s under direct orders from the top to put this thing back on track, get some people out to where Winston was and re-establish contact with the aliens right away. I tell ya, Murray, guy’s a real hard-ass. Told him I needed to get back to Miami for a shareholders meeting and he says, honest to God: “Only way you’re leaving without authorization is in a box.” What a prick. Anyway, I’m on the Projects Infrastructure and Logistics Team. Here’s the thing: We need to get Shane Dougal involved. You remember — that lawyer who took care of us on that sketchy medical lawsuit way back when? Yeah. That guy. We need him to draft some waivers and agreements for us. Like yesterday. I’m gonna copy this to email in case you’re not picking up messages. It’s urgent. Get back to me.

[beep]

Murray, it’s me. I need you to find me a good civil rights lawyer. Somebody top-notch, good credentials. Harvard or something. Get me a number, okay? I just need somebody I can keep on tap in case things get even weirder out here. I’m not even supposed to have a phone, let alone be making this call. But I gotta tell someone. This general is nuts. He had Horowitz out here yesterday to draft a boilerplate hold-harmless agreement for terminally ill patients. Then he brought an intelligence guy in to coordinate a nationwide search of hospices and nursing homes to locate three, what he called, “possibles.” I worked right under the spook for five days until we located three individuals who met the criteria. The military is arranging middle-of-the-night kidnappings (“black bag jobs” — they actually said that) to collect these poor buggers and bring ’em here.

That’s right. The general wants to put them on board the prototype and send it back to the Nebula. The thing is we can get a crew out there alive, but the subatomic displacement will kill ’em on the return trip. So we send people who are dying anyway. It’s getting downright freaking creepy, Murray! I gotta get out of here. Don’t call me, but text me the lawyer’s name and number. Pronto. I’m counting on you to do me a solid on this. Later.

[beep]

Hey, it’s me again. Thanks for the info on the lawyer, Murray. The, uh, “possibles” arrived yesterday. Oh, they’re a sorry bunch. One guy, name of Peterson, has bowel cancer and has to crap into a bag attached to his torso. They made him captain ’cause he’s the fittest of the bunch. He’s like eighty or something. Another guy’s in a wheelchair with a degenerative spinal disease and the third’s attached to a portable breathing apparatus. They’re modifying the prototype right now with wheelchair ramps and hand rails in the bathrooms. These invalids are going to be our ambassadors in deep space. Can you believe it? Funny thing is, the young guy in the wheelchair is convinced he can fix the Drive so it’s not harmful. Apparently, before he got sick and dropped out, he was some kind of whiz kid at MIT. But it’s pretty much hopeless. The crew’s doomed. They’re being put on the ship day after tomorrow.

[beep]

Murray, it’s Tom. Heard from my lawyer. He says he can present a motion to a circuit judge demanding access to project records in closed session. In other words, he thinks he can force the government to show him classified documents. If he can start making big enough waves, things might work out ’cause I think I’ve got an ally in Peterson (the guy with the crap-bag on his belt). He’s a tough old bastard. He’s on board with the project, but he’s been making problems for the general. In a meeting yesterday, he began arguing about the first contact scenario, saying he wouldn’t use the words in the script the military had prepared. “I won’t lie to no aliens,” he said. When the general tried to shut him down, the old guy started quoting Jefferson and JFK at the top of his lungs. That’s balls, I tell ya. I guess when you know you’re dying and got nothing to lose, you grow a pair fast. The general got plenty steamed but what could he do. Later he said, “That’s what you get when you hire a man to do a monkey’s job.” I like this Peterson guy.

[beep]

It’s me. Hey — reason I’m whispering is it’s three a.m. and I’m calling from one of the office phones. They found my phone and confiscated it. Don’t worry though, I’d gotten paranoid and wiped all the logs, so you’re golden. Plus, I think this whole thing’s gonna be over soon. Peterson and his crew have been placed onboard the prototype, but the general hasn’t decided whether or not to go ahead and authorize the launch. High command isn’t sure Peterson can be trusted. He told the general the other day that he was glad there wasn’t going to be no military types on board the prototype. Said he didn’t trust their kind to make first contact because they “lacked the basic equipment.” Also, the Whiz Kid keeps tinkering with the Drive against orders, convinced he can “fix” it, so no one’s sure one day to the next whether it’s even going to work or not. The general’s furious, but we’ve come too far now to back out now. I’ll — Jesus! Gotta go.

[beep]

Murray. Tom. It’s over. I’m at the airport. The Executive Club. Can you come and get me?

[beep]

Hey! Janet called and told me where you were. Sorry to hear. Let me know if there’s anything I can do. Anyway, I don’t know when you’ll get this, but I wanted to let you know how it all turned out.

The Drive worked and put our guys out at the Nebula just like we planned. Then we got a message from Peterson. There was a time delay because of the distance, but he told us: “They’re here.” That’s it. The whole place went bananas. The general called the President. Everyone got all excited, but then there was nothing to do but wait. A day became two days. Then three. Peterson wouldn’t respond to our hails. We figured the mission was a write-off.

Then suddenly, boom. The prototype returned. Just like that. One minute, there’s nothing. The next, there it is in Earth orbit. They sent a military shuttle up right away.

Meanwhile, with all this happening, my lawyer suddenly starts shaking the government’s tree. And hard. He tells the press “a prominent industrialist has been kidnapped and is being held at a secret location.” Me, “a prominent industrialist.” Can you beat it? Makes a ton of noise. The press starts sniffing around and — get this — Congress launches an investigation! You might have seen it on the news.

Of course, just then we hear back from the shuttle crew. Turns out: The prototype is empty. You can imagine how everyone reacted to that. It was a perfect storm: The mission ends, the crew’s gone and suddenly they’re in the news as the bad guys. The general receives orders to scrap the project, destroy everything, abandon the complex. We’re all cut loose. Just dropped off at the side of a highway in the desert with our luggage.

So yeah. That’s it. All’s well that ends well and so forth. Just keeping our fingers crossed that they forget about us. Lay low for a while, you know. All the same, we’ve still got our technology patents to think about — who knows if we can still claim them. But all that can wait a little while. I gotta decompress. Promised Paulette I’d buy her dinner.

Oh, and! Almost forgot. I brought a souvenir back for you. I couldn’t get any pictures or anything. But in the chaos at the end, while the Army was clearing the complex, I managed to slip something off the general’s desk. Turns out when the shuttle crew was searching the prototype, they found something taped to a computer monitor in the control centre. A handwritten note.

Says: “Dear General Lydon. Please accept our resignations from the project effective immediately. We got a better offer from a more decent boss. Love and kisses, Peterson and the boys.”

I thought you’d get a kick out of that. You got to hand it to the old fart. He’s got a lot of class for a guy who shits into a bag.

[beep]

End of saved messages.



Jamie Mason is a Canadian SF writer and critic whose fiction has appeared in On Spec, Abyss & Apex, Not One of Us and Thaumatrope. His young-adult SF novel ECHO will be published in April 2011 by Drollerie Press.

 

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